- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

A swingin’ party in the august halls of the National Gallery of Art? The fabled Rotunda turned into a dance hall of sorts? Yes, it happened Friday, complete with an eight-piece band called Full Swing playing Cole Porter and other danceable favorites throughout the evening. The black-tie affair was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the institution’s 1,100-person strong Circle group of benefactors.

No one could remember if there had ever been dancing before in the marble columned Rotunda, at the heart of the West Building. It was likely that this party was one of the largest held in the gallery since opening night in 1941, when thousands poured through the halls.

Some 900 Circle members from around the country had accepted the invitation to view masterpieces of the permanent collection between sampling food and drink options spread throughout the two Garden Courts and East and West Sculpture Halls.

The scene was a merry one, indeed. And “such an attractive way to see the art,” as interior designer John Peters Irelan enthused while commenting on the lack of “baby carriages backing into your leg” that frequently occurs during public visiting hours. The setting, he noted, trumped just about any other Washington venue (“Second only to the White House”), and made the effort of formal attire completely worthwhile.

Notable details of the night: the tiny orchids on the rim of the cosmopolitans and the foie gras and lobster touches in the hors d’oeuvres. Missing at this, as at nearly all such events, was any red-colored drink, including ubiquitous Coca-Cola, said to be a precaution in case of an accidental spill on either the porous marble floor or guests’ clothing.

“The main attraction is you get to see the exhibits quietly, at leisure,” remarked Alan West, of Washington, accompanied by his wife, Nguyen Que, members of Circle for seven years. “They give back,” he said of the gallery’s festive way of acknowledging thanks for the required minimum $1,000 that Circle members pay annually to support art and book acquisitions, conservation, concerts, education programs and other projects. More than $30 million has been contributed since its founding by Washington developer Robert H. Smith and the late Katharine Graham.

It was left to Mr. Smith to offer up a few elegantly crafted words on the occasion, following those of gallery Director Earl “Rusty” Powell III. “We are also here to celebrate the great power of philanthropy,” said Mr. Smith. “The course of human history is determined not by what happens in the skies but what takes place in the hearts of men and women. It is important to know not only how to make a living, but also how to make a life. We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

Guests included artists Lou Stovall, Willem de Looper, Betsy Stewart and such social/philanthropic notables as Ruth Buchanan, Marie Ridder, Jan and Taz Shepard, David Rust, Cynthia Helms, Joe and Mary Krakora, Albert and Shirley Small, Evelyn Nef, Bill and Ann Nitze, Russell and Aileen Train, Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, Robert and Louisa Duemling and Mallory and Diana Walker.

The list of out-of-towners reached from Florida to Texas to California. Among them were Dr. Jason Bryant Masters and his wife, Lisa, of Longwood, Fla., whose young daughter Anissa works in the gallery’s development office. She persuaded them to join, Dr. Masters said, and the evening marked their first exposure to the Circle privileges. “I love the architecture,” Dr. Masters said, remarking on Washington’s classic facades and the gallery’s interior in particular.

Also remarkable, he said, was the Circle’s 90 percent membership retention rate, which is possibly a record for groups of this kind and probably what the gallery’s founder, the entrepreneurial Andrew Mellon, would have expected of his successors.

Ann Geracimos and Kevin Chaffee

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